SOUTH PORTLAND — When students go back to school on Wednesday, Sept. 2, many will be returning to safer schools and have more technology at their disposal.
City schools will also offer free immunizations later this fall in an effort to reduce the looming flu threat, which many health experts predict will surge over the winter.
Assistant Superintendent Steve Bailey said the first phase of facility upgrades funded by a $5.8 million bond have been completed. The repairs, which started in July, include electrical improvements at Memorial and Mahoney middle schools and doorway repairs at South Portland high school. Fire alarms at all three schools were also upgraded.
“The schools are in great shape to begin the school year,” Bailey said. “The bond approved this year certainly helped, but we’re certainly not there yet.”
Meanwhile, the bleachers in the high school gym will be replaced to meet accessibility requirements. Bailey said work on the $140,000 project, approved by the School Board on Monday night, will begin as soon as the contracts are signed; the new seating should be installed by Nov. 1.
School Department Business Manager Polly Ward said more than 1,100 Apple laptop computers have already been received for middle and high school students. The high school laptop program is part of the state’s effort to expand the Maine Laptop Initiative, which started in 2001 by providing each middle school student with a computer to take home and use at school.
Ward said the School Department plans to pay $945,000 for computers for students and teachers. The computers will be paid for over two years using a portion of stabilization money received last year and this year.
Bailey said expanding access to computers to high school students is a great opportunity for teachers and students.
“It should provided better connectivity to academic (Web) sites,” Bailey said. “And it will allow students and teachers to make those connections in a more robust way.”
Students will be offered two rounds of flu vaccinations at no charge later this fall as part of a statewide effort to combat the threat of a flu outbreak.
School nurse coordinator Sue Comyns said students will be offered vaccinations for both the seasonal flu and the H1N1 virus, known as the swine flu. Seasonal flu shots will likely occur in October, while H1N1 shots will be administered in November.
The vaccinations are not mandatory, so parents will have to sign a permission slip for their children to participate, she said.
According to the Maine Center for Disease Control, Maine had 360 confirmed H1N1 cases as of Aug. 26, including 19 people hospitalized and one death. Sixty percent of Maine’s cases were people under 25 years old. However, not everyone who is infected is tested for the virus.
Nationwide, nearly 8,000 hospitalizations and 522 deaths from H1N1 have been reported; the World Health Organization reported Aug. 13 there have been nearly 1,800 deaths worldwide.
Prior to sending their children to school, Comyns said parents should educate their children about the importance of good hygiene, which includes frequent hand washing, and coughing or sneezing into one’s own shirt sleeve.
“Aerosol particles can travel 60 mph up to six feet when someone coughs or sneezes, so that’s primarily how the seasonal flu and H1N1 are transmitted,” she said. “So we have to be very careful that everyone knows we have personal responsibility to contain our own bodily fluids.”
The best way to teach children, she said, is by example. “It really takes all of us to be modeling what we’re teaching,” Comyns said.
Comyns said parents should also begin making plans about how to deal with extended absences, since students who are sick with flu-like symptoms will have to stay home from school for at least 24 hours after their fever has subsided. Teachers and nurses will also keep a close eye on kids throughout the school day and remove students from class who appear to be sick.
Meanwhile, teachers and school nurses will periodically visit classrooms to emphasize the common-sense methods for reducing transmission of flu germs.